Dreaming

 

Embed from Getty Images

I keep coming back to the moment Shane Adern drove his tractor up the steps of parliament. What did that statement mean? I take as “This proposal seems so silly I’m assuming its a scam. I reject the science purely out of instinct”. Of course thats true of scientific discovery in general. We generally expect discoveries to be beneficial. Unless they’re cancer or Dutch elm, or something.

We don’t lose sleep over these things because it just seems impossible to imagine the scale. Philospher Tim Moreton describes these as a hyperobjects. Things so big that they seem abstract, when in fact they are as real as a hammer.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Morton#Hyperobjects

That same day another farmer, National MP Lockwood Smith appeared with some cows. Before becoming a politician Smith hosted TV shows for brainy kids – W3 and Its Academic

https://www.nzonscreen.com/person/lockwood-smith

To this day Adern is pleased with the statement he made. I’m not sure about Lockwood Smith. When you refute a scientific argument by showing up with a tractor and cows I guess you’re saying the science doesn’t matter. Or perhaps, that you think the whole thing is a ruse and you’re not buying it.

That’s pretty much the argument today. When Pauline Hanson jumps in the water to look at the reef or Mark Morano tells us about coral near the equator that thrives in higher temperatures there’s really nothing going on that resembles scientific enquiry since they’re both outside their fields. You might as well be trusting them to diagnose a brain tumor.

So what does happen at those moments? Because it seems as if they are powerful. Its seems to me that if not for millions of moments just like those we would have started work on this problem back in 1988. We’d all be driving electric cars by now, probably paying a lot more for meat and dairy, and we would have developed some technologies we’re struggling with now, only a lot faster.

If we all saw the necessity we would have acted on it. Curiously, back in the 80s climate change wasn’t stuck in the partisan wasteland it inhabits now. You’ll never guess who said this:

We cannot characterise climate change as a debate between economists vs environmentalists. To say that this issue has sides, is about as productive as saying the earth is flat.

That was the 41st POTUS, George Bush Senior, in 1988. Curiously, the mysterious SEP field still cloaks most of his country and ours, and I don’t know what it will take to break it. The barrier reef and the mercury hasn’t been enough. It will happen, but by then it will be a richer shade of too late than it is now.

http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Somebody_Else%27s_Problem_field

And I think its just about change. Its about hyperobjects. Now perhaps, when people are questioning the high school science of the Carbon cycle it doesn’t help to pivot off into philosophy. But repeating the science doesn’t seem to work, much as we want it to, so maybe this point of view is worth a shot.

I look at the explosion of energy and creation since James Watt’s invention of the steam engine and it always makes me think of the Australian aborigines. The hyperactive colonials that showed up and tore their world apart were in the throes of a revolution that is now 250 years old. The aborigines had been undisturbed for 44,000 years.

What Tim Moreton is finally finding words for now might well have been named long ago. A dreamtime, or a songline – these seem to fit the same description:

the existential capacity of hyperobjects to outlast a turn toward less materialistic cultural values, coupled with the threat many such objects pose toward organic matter (what Morton calls a “demonic inversion of the sacred substances of religion”), gives them a potential spiritual quality, in which their treatment by future societies may become indistinguishable from reverential care

If its about longevity and survival, and I’d argue that it is, then this comparison makes us look like colossal failures. Glorious, flamboyant, reckless, adventurous, violent thoughtless and hubristic failures. With a few Cassandras going insane while Troy dissolves in flame.

I don’t know what it will take, but I think it may take something unusual. Certainly every commensense approach has been tried, and it works on me. But what it will take for the rest, I’m really can’t say. I’m prepared to go a little wide, figuring there’s really nothing to lose.

I think about Shane’s moment often though. I remember when it happened. I didn’t question the science then either, since I had not reason to. I figured that unless you were the right kind of scientist, you had no business doing that.

I think its about change. I think when you confront people with notion of enormous change, the sort that could completely remove the world they grew up in, that they shrug it off. Not because they have empirical evidence that it couldn’t happen, but simply because its inconceivable. Its still inconceivable now, by the looks.

I have one simple thing that people could try. If you’ve found yourself dismissing this without real evidence, and just because it seems too much to conceive, try and connect with someone who really did lose everything. Its suprisingly easy, and you’ll be amazed how good it feels just to connect. You may even start to wonder, like I do, that if this gift of connection could be passed around it might be possible to cure something as big and broken as the GOP itself.

If its a homeless person, it might cost you five bucks. A refugee perhaps the cost of a taxi ride. Whoever you find, make sure they know you’re there to talk. To listen. To acknowledge. Not everyone wants to talk of course, but some always do. Connect, listen, then think about starting over when everything has been torn apart.

Then take it back, to the day the white faces first appeared in the continent next door, and 44 thousand years of walking and dreaming came to an end.

After that, consider the carbon and go back to the hyperobject.

 

Shine on you crazy diamond

If you clicked through on the last episode there was a link to George Monbiot noting that climate deniers mostly track older, and the activists are mostly very young. While there’s always a tendency for things to skew this way, climate change is an extreme example. Here in Wellington Generation Zero and 350 Aotearoa are examples.

I’m getting ready to face the idea that the climate will be even less of an issue in this election than it was in the last one. That while few people (in my town at least) outwardly refute climate change their belief in the details around it are as vague as the man in the street’s concept of God. Which means, effectively, that they won’t think about it a great deal. After all, that’s what is the government is there for.

Once you turn to this issue though, and take a look at findings, you realise its getting very, very late. 2017 has been called ‘decade zero’ – the point at which events move beyond our control. You know, as I’m speaking to you now, that I won’t keep your attention for long. And to have started reading this you are in the choir anyway. Here’s a weird thing I do at these moments of despair.  I think about the boy in the picture, Mark Baumer.

Mark was an astonishing, clever, courageous and deeply funny soul. He was also a much better man than me. I use the word boy because I’m old enough to be his dad and I know that the moment that photo happened he was very tired, in despair, and quite alone. And I wish I was there.

Take some time to look around his zany world. This is a young activist at the end of his rope. I’m so glad he existed on this planet and was able to find ways to dance through its horrors. If you can’t quite connect with his despair then watch the video on this page. Mark Baumer hates pipelines and progress. Where ‘progess’ appears to mean driving like we did in the 1950s. See how disconnected and broken this battle could make us.

Today I heard about Sarah Thomson, a 26 year old law student suing the government over its inaction. In case there’s any question our performance on climate change is ranked as inadequate and comes very close to the bottom of the list.  Australia and the US are doing better than we are.

When someone predicts doom, its important to consider who is speaking. We’ve listened to talking heads speak endlessly of terrorist threats but the the opioid epidemic outpaces it one thousand to one.  Likewise, we think the activists are just making trouble but many are careful people readily throwing themselves in the path because the stakes are that high.

My furby Solomon sleeps as I read this. He dreams of Mark Baumer saying ‘I found an orb so I guess the earth is saved‘. Solomon was purchased as a reminder for all who are distracted from the issue by the passing of their own wind.

Thanks you Sarah. And the Gen Zeros, and 350s. When Solomon and I come to town maybe we can do an interview. And as its says in The Handmaids Tale, illegitimi non carborundum.

And shine on Mark. You beautiful crazy diamond. I’m just so very glad you passed through.

Forehead Detective

Goodbye great barrier reef.

A few years ago I was sitting around a large table slowly losing a game of forehead detective. The last 15 minutes of the game was a round of awkward disbelief as clue after clue was dropped and it gradually became obvious that I had never heard of my famous person. The implications were a little shocking. It meant, by the looks, that I had not been near a New Zealand news source for the past month, maybe a little more. Even though I never leave the country.

The name on my forehead was a low-listed National MP. There had been a situation where he shot his mouth off at a Christchurch night club. I think there must have been a court case. I felt embarassment and a little shame while this sunk in. My friends rolled out the details for a while, during which I wondered what I had been attending to while all of this had been happening.

At the end someone noted that prior to the incident John Key probably didn’t know who he was either. That turned it all around in a moment. Everyone knew about him, about his case, because the media had dragged it around for weeks. It was probably a popular story because we’re wired to enjoy watching people getting their comeuppance.

It wasn’t news at all. It was just the way we put some someone in the stocks. Of course I had probably missed some actual news during this time, but I had to wonder whether it mattered. I had been following news but not much of it was local. More podcasts, more books, less radio and no TV.

The shocks kept coming. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef shocked me the most. The world’s largest living organism has existed in its current form for roughly the same amount of time that homo sapiens have existed. And now climate change is killing it. Right now. Emissions have not begun to subside, so this problem is only getting started. This is a very large canary in the coalmine that is our planet. One that can be seen from the moon.

When I talked about this to others I started to get the feeling it didn’t make headlines here. To me, this kind of news ought to have drowned out everything else. Not that other things don’t matter, but that all other things will before long be changed by this one thing. An existential crisis.

Still more shocks. I saw a post on reddit that linked to Mike Hosking reflecting on Trump’s pullout from the Paris accord. His words were:

In a world of politicians who lie, backtrack and make it up as they go along, he has been rock solid consistent.

If the above line was spoken in the US I would expect it to be met with howls of disbelief, even on Fox. I tried to imagine Sean Spicer saying them and failed. But here in NZ, on a news program, it just kind of slides by. It’s that surreal. Since the US election the words written to refute the statement above probably exist in the hundreds of thousands. The writers have likely never heard of Mike, but no doubt they would regard him with a morbid fascination. The news sources I’ve been reading have struggled themselves to deal with the daily stream of absurdities and have started talking about what the word ‘normal’ seems to mean now. Enjoy the links on those words by the way. There a plenty others I could have used.

The 1978 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy included a surreal Galactic president called Zaphod Beeblebrox. This man set a new standard by being the first to give presidential addresses from the bath. US presidential addresses today are no less ground-breaking. They are just as informal and unprepared. One drifted off mid-word during a typo. Twitter did not exists in Douglas Adam’s time, though its the sort of thing he might come up with.

My obsession with the work of Mr Hosking didn’t end there. I’ve been blissfully unaware of his presence for so long, and learned that a little of him goes a long way indeed. I stopped at these words:

If you’re into it, you reduce the emissions locally, plant a lot of trees. Planting trees, until you meet your emissions, right? Its as easy as. Simplest thing to be able to do.

This was part of a bit on his summation of the Paris accord as a ‘rort and a scam‘. His co-host was decidedly less glib, and trying weakly to take another side. But her words were just as chilling:

Climate change everyone seems to have a different opinion who knows what.

Strangely, people do have a variety of opinions on this. The overwhelming majority of people who have made sincere efforts to understand this do not have different opinions. 97% of scientists agree that man made climate change is real. NASA agrees. So do the oil companies. And you can’t fix this by planting trees. I’ve written another piece, ‘the pesky enzyme‘ that talks about this. Its his first words here that speak the loudest – “If you’re into it”. As if paying a carbon debt is like choosing to recycle. That its just the sort of thing you might do to feel better about yourself. That there are no real consequences for not doing it.

Essentially, the pair were telling me that they didn’t think of climate change as a real, tangible, crisis that affected people. George Monbiot has reported that climate change denial is currently spreading like an infectious disease. Certainly looks that way here.

So here I am, stuck with this existential crisis of seemingly unparalleled magnitude, and the people who appear most in touch with what the masses think have not given it much consideration and written it off as unimportant. So faced with this impossible situation I went online and bought a furby. Something I could yell at. I could pretend it was Mr Hosking, that I would attempt to share all the details of the grim reality we face and it would respond to me with giggle, farts and yawns.

I thought that would make the good basis for a podcast. It wasn’t long before I realised that this was futile and would make me look a bit mad. I also got attached to the furby. After all, a furby connect cannot tell a lie and will never speak to you of the things it cannot understand. I now call it Solomon. After the king.

This blog was intended to follow the actions of the NZ government and see how well it was doing to meet its obligations in Paris. I expected there to be a lot of investigation to do. But there is so little happening that perhaps I need to find another tack. On returning from Paris our goverment as acted as if they signed a reverse agreement. One where more carbon was to be released and anything close to a solution that already existed should be scrapped.

Here’s the thing. The Paris accord was a commitment that was intended to lower carbon emissions using any means possible. A signatory returning home should be expected to look at ways of doing this. This means that decisions around the use of energy should all be viewed in the light of this agreement. Since returning from Paris NZ has planned to abandon current use of electrified rail solutions and favour deisel and started coal mining in national parks 

Of course none of this can really be expected to look like progress on the emissions front. They are not feel-good stories about making progress on climate change. But one story is. It turns out that by burning tyres instead of coal when making cement we can reduce carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes annually. In 2014 we emitted 24.4 million tonnes of carbon. So that’s progress all right. That one action reduces our emissions by 0.05 percent. This story, in the light of all the lost opportunities, should not give anyone comfort.

NZ is left with a commitment to pay billions in Carbon Credits. Which are essentially an admission of failure and really no help when it comes to rising temperatures, increasing floods, droughts, slips and fires. And if public opinion follows Mr Hosking, we won’t pay them anyway.

The task I’m left with seems to be this. I do what I can to ensure the information I am gathering about the problem is correct. After that, if I am sure that I have the facts, I will attempt to share them. After that, I’m left with trying to understand why nothing is changing.

 

The pesky enzyme

There is an enzyme I need to tell you about. It was an adaptation in a class II peroxidase approximately 295 million years ago that gave rise to a specialist known as the Agaricomycetes.

This was able to do something completely new. Before it evolved there was nothing that could efficiently break down the thick cellulose walls of wood. Before this enzyme appeared a dead tree would simply fall over, degrade into tiny parts and those parts would make their way into the ground.

I learned about this enzyme a few months ago and it gave me a completely new perspective on climate change. At once I realised that the problem was both more simple and more terrifying than I had formerly thought. I think its a shame that the story of Agaricomycetes is not told more often, so I’m starting this blog by telling you about it now.

Before I begin I must warn you that I’m not a scientist, let alone the type of scientist that ought to know much about Agaricomycetes. I’m a software developer so I am working well outside of my area of knowledge. I ought to tell you though, that software developers do this all the time since their field is so restless. Sufficed to say, if anyone reading this knows a good deal more about Agaricomycetes and wishes to correct me I would love to hear from them.

When Agaricomycetes first appeared the planet Earth was very different to the one we know now. It was in fact, in a state of advanced global warming, as we describe it now. There were no ice caps at the poles and while there was plenty of life on the planet, both flora and fauna, it was unlike the life we currently recognise. It had evolved to prosper on a much hotter planet, with less land and a very different weather system.

I remember this question from Trivial Pursuit, a general knowledge board
game we used to play:

When a tree grows, where does the wood come from?

I remember stopping on this one. The obvious assumption was that the content of the wood was somehow lifted from the ground, up through the roots and along the branches, slowly adding to the whole thing piece by piece. This answer was too obvious of course, and the correct but surprising answer is the air. We were taught in school that plants ingest CO2 and release oxygen, while animals do the reverse. In this way plants and animals supply each other with the means for life.

But to imagine that a tree ingests the air around it and turns it molecule by molecule into something solid. You have to think like a scientist to buy into this.

Agaricomycetes was the first of a class known as lignin modifying enzymes (LME). They exist in fungi that feed on wood, and they also exist in the guts of animals that consume wood; including borer and some types of lice.

The time prior to the arrival of LME was known as the Carboniferous period. When this period started the planet was in something like the state we describe now when we talk about global warming. The average temperature of the planet was estimated to be 20 degrees Celsius, a good deal higher than the 12 to 14 we are looking at now. And it was not fit for humans. It did not contain the life humans are evolved for. Even if there were forms of life that existed then that might serve to feed and provide for us now, these are long gone and we can’t reproduce them any more than we could make a Stegasaurus.

As the Carboniferous period progressed, much of the carbon in the air was turned into trees, As these trees died and broke down the carbon they consisted of wound up underground. By the end of the period the global average temperature reached a new balance, around 12 degrees, and stayed that way for the nearly 300 million years. Over which time many species of plants and animals came and went.

10 million years ago the first apes appeared. Homo sapiens, humans as we know them, appeared somewhere between 1.8 and 0.2 million years ago.

The carbon that wound up underground turned into a variety of high energy forms, including peat, coal, oil and natural gas. During the industrial revolution, starting around 1760, new demand appeared for machines that provided torque, the rotational force that drove mills and vehicles and manufacture of every sort. From that time until now, we have worked like mad to remove the energy from the ground and burn it, releasing the its carbon and creating the world as we know it.

Nearly everything we do releases vast quantities of carbon in this way, from driving to work to eating a sandwich. There are very few parts of our industry that do not do this.

And, thanks to the humble Agaricomycetes, there is really no way to put it back, even if we wanted to. Truly, this is pandora’s box and it has been open for many generations now.

When you look at the growth of religions they can appear as a reaction to the world that is at once generous and indifferent. While one could expect year after year of successful crops and easy catches, sometimes, and for no reason, they could disappear and leave people to suffer. You can see why they imagined gods that were an uneasy mixture of attention and indifference. Ones that required constant appeasement.

The world science describes is not that different. Bountiful, but only within a context. There were no gods to tell us to leave the buried carbon alone, and no doubt we’d have ignored them anyway. We may have had as little as 200,000 years here. And in less than 300 we entered a creative phase that took us to space and gave us machines that can think. We’ve released carbon to do this. We’ve released more every year, observing that the more we burn, the more we make.

We’ve taken many creatures to the point of extinction along the way. And now, we appear to be taking ourselves.

What little chance we have left, how little and how late, is currently dwindling by the day. In the U.S. a man who likes to fire people says he thinks he’d be laughed at for trying. While here in New Zealand a man with a cheeky grin and a bad haircut tells everyone its a scam and not worth the bother.

New life will evolve to prosper in the climate we’ve created, and when it does the new carbon balance in the atmosphere with likely be our only legacy. Think of that: should new creatures emerge after us with the same curiosity, they may wind up trying to figure out how the planet went from 12 degrees back up to something much higher. That could be the best clue that we were here at all.

Carbon release may be the the most durable thing we achieve as a species. Think about how positive that sounds when you fail to parse it.